25 Points: Gulag

by Anne Applebaum
Anchor Books, 2004
736 pages / $18.95 buy from Amazon









1. Roughly speaking, the Gulag was the soviet prison camp system that operated from about 1919 through the late 1950’s, though some camps lasted right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself

2. Anne Applebuam, the author of this work, has never been a prisoner in a Gulag. In fact Applebaum is pretty much the total opposite of most people who were in the Gulag system, who were by and large poorer Russians and eastern europeans of various national origins. Applebaum is a member of America’s patrician class. She went to Yale and Oxford, worked as a foreign correspondent for The Economist, and is married to the foreign minister of Poland.

3. I can’t help but wonder if one reason Applebaum decided to tackle such a grim, destitute subject is because, like many people who have a fairly secure, lofty station in life, they are morbidly fascinated by the sheer horror of tragedies beyond their geographic and chronological frame of reference. (note: while I am not a member of said lofty station, I am not currently starving to death and am myself often fascinated by horrific national tragedies)

4. I don’t want you to think that Anne Applebaum simply wrote this book out of some universe of vast privilege and is just sort of casually looking down and and trying to explicate history like the Queen of England talking about what’s happening in Syria with the Prince of Wales at afternoon tea or something. The Gulag system as a topic is so enormous, so horrifically cruel and violent, that she obviously had to submerge herself into it to a degree and for a length of time that most people, let alone most writers of history, would probably find appalling.

5. To be honest, I think her outsider status here works to her advantage more than anything. Most of the Russian language works about the Gulag she cites are very emotionally powerful, but they tend to become monotonous and sort of blend all together in a single,very Slavic voice of total despair. You can only read so many descriptions of old women bitterly weeping while receiving their daily bread ration before it becomes this easily dismissible rhetoric of misery.

6. This book is about 700 pages long. About 110 pages of that length is source notes and bibliographical information of one kind or another. Anne Applebaum offers a tidal wave, like an actual wave that engulfs you, of background information and first hand accounts of what life was like in the Gulag system.

7. While reading it I kept wondering if I would ever have it in me to write a 700 page long book of which 1/7 is pure reference information. I mean, I get that people do that sort of thing for a PHD, but that is presumably a big incentive to finish a book. Did she get some kind of advance for this? Or was this just a kooky little pet project she nursed along for years on her own?

8. This is the single most painful work of non-fiction I have ever read.

9. No, really.

10. If the perpetrators of the Holocaust were, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, committing the banality of evil, then the Gulag system is about the banality of apathy. At no point was the cruelty of the system or of the administrators of the camps or the guards ever mandated. The purpose of the Gulag was never that of the Nazi camps (even if they do bear horrific similarities), in fact, the actual idea of what this whole prison camp system was for fluctuated a lot over time. Sometimes it was about trying to rehabilitate prisoners, sometimes it was about using their slave labor to turn a profit, sometimes it was just about getting rid of undesirable elements and sending them 10 time zones away in the arctic waste. Though that last thing is literally the only thing it did that actually worked.

11. Ok, we are all probably kind of sick at this phase of history of comparing things to the holocaust and Nazi concentration camps, but what other comparison can you draw between capturing millions of “undesirable” people and shipping them off in trains? Even a comparison that’s so hopelessly stereotypical can still be valid.

12. Getting back to that point about apathy, the real reason so many suffered in the Gulag is essentially because of systemic negligence. If inmates didn’t have enough food, or any shelter, or any warm clothes after being shipped to the arctic, no one in Moscow or along the way really gave a shit. This system was an atrocity of indifference. And like most things involving colossal indifference, its hard to say where exactly the balance lies with regards to how systemic or how spontaneous that indifference is at different moments.

13. Also, that image I just mentioned about being shipped off to the arctic can be kind of inaccurate. There were deadly gulag camps in the arctic, but the system itself had over 400 camps across Russia, many of them located close to or even in major cities. In fact one of Stalin’s major ideas for the camps was to use them as a way to populate Russia’s more rural regions. Many modern Russian cities and towns were originally set up as different outposts in the prison camp system and grew into small urban centers of their own.

14. Really though, that idea of social engineering, of using people as raw material to create or expand something, is, at least in some ways, kind of endemic to Russian cultural history. St. Petersburg was famously built on the bones of hundreds of thousands of serfs merely to fulfill Peter the Great’s whim to create a “window to europe.” And that’s an image of brute power that Russians have worked to remember and have embellished into their cultural memory. Stalin himself conceived of massive public works projects to which Gulag prisoners were put to use and which killed thousands. Most of which were such totally useless, unprofitable blunders that one wonders if he didn’t simply order them to amuse his personal love of brute power.

15. All this talk about literally using people as objects of labor brings up one of the major tacit points of this book, which Applebaum wisely chooses not to go into too much philosophical depth on directly: the real thing that made the Soviet Union’s political system what it was wasn’t so much that the state owned all the property and industry (though it did); the real secret core of Sovietism, at least according to Applebaum, is that what the Soviet system really completely owns, is you.

16. Early Soviet Russia was backwards as all hell. At some of the earliest work camps, when assigned to dig trenches in the ground, they didn’t even have shovels for the prisoners to use. They had to dig down into the hard northern dirt with their hands.

17. This book is full of impossibly harrowing images of human life at the brink of dissolution. People breaking rocks with their hands. Making shoes out of old newspaper and rubber tires. Stealing food from each other, sleeping on rotting wooden boards in a barracks with dirt floors and no heat.

18. These descriptions go on and on and become not just sad but unbearably painful. At one point she describes a ship full of prisoners being transported to a northern camp, the men manage to break down the barrier separating their section from the female prisoners, and in the belly of that ship tossing through a freezing sea, where not even their loved ones know where they are or where they are going, the male prisoners proceed to rape, beat and even kill some of the female prisoners while the guards more or less look on in disinterest.

19. I’m not going to spend this review recounting the various horrors of cold, starvation, illness, sexual assault and general grinding inhumanity that are on display in this book because, as vital and important as remembering the misery of these people is, I’m not sure its the books real purpose.

20. Applebaum has, maybe without knowing it, overshot her intentions in this book, she might be initially interested in memorializing the prisoners experience and utterly discrediting the human rights record of the Soviet Union, but what she really ends up doing is discrediting the entire concept of governance itself. In some ways, this book’s culminating sentiment is one of total political nihilism. So long as any national government is capable of treating so many millions of people so incredibly poorly for so many decades on end, the very concept of people governing other people at all has to be called into question, be it Democratic, Socialistic or otherwise. In this way, Applebaum asks a hugely profound political question without ever directly stating it or interrogating it. The critical core of this book, much like the prison system it is about, remains hidden beyond our regular perception.

21. I don’t think Applebaum intended to destroy a readers faith in the concept of human government. She’s sort of like a well intentioned leader during a war who wants to go in for a surgical missile strike, but before she knows it she’s just carpet bombed the entire city.

22. Then again, maybe on some mental level, Applebaum is sort of drawn to this potential nihilism. Especially because as a member of the civilly concerned upper class, that kind of dancing around the pyre of human futility is, I would have to think, probably completely shunned.

23. Maybe this book, with all its terrors, and its implications about the impossibility of any kind of human order, came about as the result of some kind of mid-life crisis. Maybe this is how an extremely intellectual, middle aged woman who has become a prominent journalist lets her hair down and builds a mud hut deep in the woods behind her house and drinks pig blood and howls at the moon. Gulag might ultimately be a plea for disorder, not against it.

24. I do not mean to imply that Applebaum explicating the suffering of millions under an oppressive, inhuman system as a possible method of exploring the darker, perhaps neglected parts of her own nature is exploitative or disrespectful or wrong.

25. Actually, maybe the only way you could even write a book like this is if it tapped into some inner darkness in your own life which has just been lying dormant for years. We are so wont to think that that’s some kind of deceptive or somehow immoral tactic but maybe its the real reason writers even tackle subjects like this. Could it be that to write effectively about something real that is so twisted and dark you have to be genuinely, twisted and dark yourself?

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  1. sethoelbaum

      i like this book a lot. her intro is very considered, especially when she mentions how hollywood and western culture depict the horrors of the holocaust all over the place (like through blockbuster movies); yet, an apparatus that was somewhat similar — stalin’s gulag camps — is given little to no spotlight. instead, america became friends with them for a bit of time.

  2. sethoelbaum

      but, also, there were no gas chambers, there was no orderly system for extinguishing human creatures, so maybe that’s why fdr and stalin and churchill could be friends for a bit. as u say:

      Stalin himself conceived of massive public works projects to which Gulag
      prisoners were put to use and which killed thousands. Most of which
      were such totally useless, unprofitable blunders that one wonders if he
      didn’t simply order them to amuse his personal love of brute power.

      this seems sort of true of capitalism too

  3. jeremy

      Yeah, one thing that comes through in the book is that as completely awful as the camps are, they are never quite so bad as the sickest imagination might suspect.

  4. Sam Moss

      cf. sozhenitsyn’s (partially first hand) report which is generally sardonic and often very funny…

  5. bemightee

      i read this book some time ago and agree totally with points 8 and 9. i remember that i could only get through 50 pages or so at a time before having to put it down and just stare at a wall or something.

      i live in poland and have heard a lot of harrowing stories about people’s grandparents who were shipped off to the gulags and then managed to survive only to return damaged. i’m always in awe at the resilency of the human spirit after hearing stories like that and, for a few days afterward at least, thankful for the little things in life.

  6. Rauan Klassnik

      great write-up, man… really enjoyed!

  7. Ken Baumann

      Thank you for this—adding the book to my list now. Picking up on the thread of questioning the idea of human governance is really interesting… I feel like this is one of those Pandora’s Box (or Pandora’s Jar or whatever) ideas; that once you immerse yourself in the destructive powers of large-scale institutions like the big ol’ nation state, it’s hard not to wonder why we don’t voluntarily bust up—or bar ourselves from forming—mega-institutions to prevent them from doing such damage to either their citizens, or to strangers abroad. I wish the U.S. was just a loosely associated collection of 15 mile x 15 mile cantons.

  8. jeremy

      I can certainly respect that sentiment about the cantons. I think things are sort of nascently heading in that direction anyway.

  9. Jeremy Hopkins

      I’m capable of repeatedly punching someone in the face for no good reason, therefore the entire concept of making a fist must be called into question?!
      If your fingers have even the potential to be used for sin, cut them off?!

  10. Anastasia Geffe

      I seriously doubt this book could cause me to question our ability to govern other human beings any more than the current state of The United States Congress, but I may just give it a go when I feel like a bit of Slavic despair.

  11. Ken Baumann

      There’s a difference between the simply causal (fist -> face) powers of a fist and those of a non-linear system with a billion moving parts (nation state -> war). Besides: to punch you, I have to be three feet away from you. A bit more personally risky than what a bureaucrat has to do to get someone (or a few million people) murdered.

  12. Jeremy Hopkins

      A – There’s a difference between everything. In this case there’s also a similarity in that the fist is a moving part; lots of fists punching in tandem on command might just be a war.
      I guess I think of government as a ‘tool’, that is to say I see it as something no more inherently moral or immoral than a shovel or automobile. Of course, barring Skynet or the Matrix or something, you can’t really have a government without some ongoing human action, and I understand some people think that any official governance amounts to violent coercion; I don’t.
      B – Depends on what counts as risk: risk of discovery, or risk of retaliation, or risk of infamy, and so on.